First, I want to refer you to a piece Michael Feingold has written in memory of Alvin Epstein: Explaining Alvin Epstein. I first had the pleasure of meeting Alvin when Emily Mann cast him in a production of The Value of Names at Hartford Stage. I can’t claim that I initially understood what an honor it was to work with him. The production arose in the days before we had easy access to peoples’ pasts through the internet. I had seen and admired him a few times and knew a few of the high-profile credits, but the depth and range of his career? That I didn’t begin to appreciate that until after we worked together. I just knew he was smart as hell and engaging company.
Some years later, I was involved in a project (which, for reasons I’m not at liberty to go into, I never finished). I got to visit him in the residence where he was spending the final years of his retirement outside of Boston. The conversation, of course, was fascinating. As Michael says in his piece, Alvin seemed to have encountered more corners of contemporary theatre than anybody else I can name.
A few months after that, as part of the same project, my buddy Martha Wade Steketee and I found ourselves in the same room with Alvin and Meryl Streep, Carmen de Lavallade, Lizbeth MacKay, Chris Durang, John Rothman, and William Ivey Long listening to them swap stories. Many of them were about Alvin’s production of Midsummer Night’s Dream and about Joe Grifasi as one of the Rude Mechanicals unable to resist eating one of the onions that was meant to counterfeit his character’s bosom. Howling with laughter, Streep described how the onion got away from him and rolled down the raked stage. I have been told by many that that production was not only great in itself but was one of the reasons they went into the theatre. Robert Brustein first presented it at Yale Rep and then had it restaged at the American Repertory Theatre when he moved there.
I should mention that Alvin published his memoirs a few years back. Here’s a link: Dressing Room Stories: The Making of an Artist.
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Last night saw a staged reading of Jeffrey Cohen’s The Soap Myth, directed by Pam Berlin. I gather it was originally produced at the Roundabout Downstairs in 2012. The main reason for my going was to see Ed Asner. Back in 1978, my book about Second City, Something Wonderful Right Away, was released, and I heard that Ed saw someone carrying a copy and asked to buy it from him. Though he wasn’t in Second City, he came out of the same community that founded it, and he was eager to read their memories of their shared past. I found myself in Los Angeles sometime after that and was introduced to him, and we instantly sat down for drink and a multi-hour conversation that started with the old days in Chicago and then rambled on into politics, Shakespeare and whoever was pissing him off at the moment.
In 2003, for reasons too complicated to be worth going into, he and Barbara Harris and I put together a benefit for the Arizona Jewish Theatre. Though the audience was of Phoenix theatergoers, we thought they might be interested in some insights into the origins of Chicago theatre. (Also, that was what we were qualified to talk about.) So we told stories, ran a clip of Barbara doing a scene with Alan Arkin, and Ed and I did a scene from one of my plays, Bluff (which is the anthology, The Value of Names and Other Plays). As we were rehearsing the scene, Ed stopped and said, “I know what you’re doing.” “What am I doing?” I asked. Ed replied, “You’re feeding the monster. I can take care of myself. Go for your laughs.” How could I refuse an injunction like that?
Ed and Barbara were supposed to do a scene from The Tempest, which they had played together in Chicago in the early Fifties. But, when we met to rehearse, Barbara said she had decided she didn’t want to do it. Since I was more or less narrating the evening, I could refer to it, but … So, that night, during the performance, I mentioned, “You guys did The Tempest together in Chicago.” And Ed looked at Barbara and said, “Come on, Barbara, don’t be a poopyhead. Let’s do it.” And they did. Without having rehearsed. A scene between Prospero and Miranda. I believe Barbara was 68 at the time, but, within seconds she had us utterly convinced she was a 16-year-old girl. I had never heard Ed deal with verse before, and it turned out he was a master. Everybody in the room knew they were witnessing something rare and the applause was beyond the appreciative. I’m guessing it’s the last time Barbara performed in front of an audience.
Last night, The Soap Myth proved to be a powerful experience. Ed played a holocaust survivor furious at a museum because it refused to verify an aspect of the holocaust he knew from experience to be true. The play goes on to deal with the politics of history, specifically the battle over the question of whether the Nazis made soap from the bodies of murdered Jews. Some historians have backed off from confirming this because of the paucity of evidence they feel they need in the face of holocaust deniers. I’ve written about politics and memory and Jewish history myself in The Value of Names and The Action Against Sol Schumann, so I am more than a little aware of the minefield you enter when attempting to engage these subjects. Passages of The Soap Myth echo some of the dynamics in my plays, not because I think Cohen drew from my stuff, but because we both observed (I think accurately) some of the same dynamics. Anyway, his is a strong play. It’s touring, and there’s another performance in New York on Monday January 28th at the church on the corner of 86th Street and Amsterdam. Some information on other dates is here: The Soap Myth tour. (The link includes video featuring an earlier cast, but it gives a good taste of the piece.)
The cast performing in the current tour with Ed is impressive. Tovah Feldshuh plays dual roles and, in a talkback after, said it was enormous fun for once to play people the audience heartily dislikes. Ned Eisenberg plays multiple roles, including a Catskills comic with dubious taste, with his usual precision and wit. Liba Vaynberg is also terrific in the particularly difficult role of a young journalist threading her way through the memories of people decades older than she is and trying to find a balance in how to represent fairly what she was too young to witness. I don’t claim objectivity, but I recommend the play highly.